Monday, August 15, 2016

Closing Notes

This is good-bye.

This blog began one year ago, on the 14th of August 2015, with an excerpt from my grandfather's book on partition and the freedom movement. I wanted to end with another excerpt from his other book, "Fight For Freedom In Sylhet", but unfortunately that did not materialize for several reasons.

There were 3 main reasons I wanted to create a book-excerpt based blog of this nature.

1. It would be a challenge to post a fresh excerpt for 365 days from 365 different books.
2. I wanted to create interest amongst readers so that they may want to buy the book. A try-before-you-buy scheme, so to say.
3. And perhaps to generate debate, discourse, and to demarcate a group of people interested in discussion.

Observations and Outcome on the above:

1. It was truly a challenge. I believed that it would be easy. But after the first 60 posts, it became much more difficult. And the reason was point number 2.

2. To generate interest I had to search for the right portion from each book- that would excite the reader, or, otherwise, be representative of the entire book and act as an introduction to the subject. This meant that I had to spend sufficient time on each book to select the appropriate section to reproduce.

3. On the third count there has not been success in numbers- but I have no regrets. Initially I did try promoting the blog on G+ and Twitter. But results were disappointing. The blog did not go beyond a very small group of interested readers, although Blogger's own statistics lie. The supra-26,000 pageviews it claims is largely due to crawling bots. Google Analytics gives a completely different picture, and is more likely to be the truth. A total of 2800+ pageviews, with 30% returning visitors. Most were from India(31%), but US, UK, Russia, Singapore, Australia, Pakistan also feature amongst top 10 visiting countries.

There are many wonderful books which I could not include in this one year of daily posts. Some because they were difficult to scan without damaging, some because they would not fit neatly into the genre of "non-fiction", and some simply because I ran out of days.

The scanning-to-blog process itself involves 5 distinct processes, and since I'm a believer in "open-source" everything- here is my work-flow:

Stage 1. Scanning:

I use Epson L200 series Printer-scanner. My operating system (on most days) is OpenSuse 13.2. I use the scanner application to scan in TIF images.

Stage 2. Cleaning Image:

I use the ScanTailor application to straighten (de-skew) the scanned images, clean up, split pages and prep them for OCR (Optical Character Recognition).

Stage 3. Converting to text:

I use Tesseract OCR to convert the images into text. It is a command line program, and for bulk work this is suitable, since it allows iterating through thousands of pages. Moreover, Tesseract is robust, and very accurate.

Stage 4. Cleaning text and posting:

The resulting text has to be checked for errors, and separate pages concatenated (joined) for each post. Errors mainly occur due to super-scripts, subscripts, and non-standard characters. I use Aspell to check spellings on a first run. I use Sed (Stream Editor) to remove hyphens and newline characters at the end of each line, to format. I use a string of = signs to demarcate paragraphs, and in my formatting script for Sed, I use the = signs as a splitter. After the machine-formatting, I do a visual (human-read) check to clean up any discrepancies. Then it goes into a digest text file from which I post.

Stage 5. Posting

I copy-paste text into Blogger's interface, and add tags (keywords). I do a Google search for the book cover image, download it and upload to the Blogger interface. I create scheduled entries that fire at 9 pm every evening. (Earlier they were triggered at 8:30 pm every evening).

That's a brief description of the process unless I copy paste from ebooks. There is a sizable number of ebooks I have used. But even these require formatting and cleaning up.

Excerpts from some excellent books could not be posted, because the scanning process would inevitably damage the books. I shall mention only a very few of these books.

The Ivory Throne, by Manu Pillai.

This is a mammoth book printed in small font, and deeply researched. It is the tale of the "House of Travancore", anchored around Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last and unfortunately, forgotten queen. The drama includes a host of other characters- many of them scheming, politicking, promiscuous, wife-swapping courtiers and relatives who fight tooth and nail in this tale of dynastic feud- in short hot and intriguing stories about sordid characters, including Raja Ravi Verma and his temperamental wife. With 105 pages of footnotes, this volume remains to be completed.

Besieged: 1857, Voices from Delhi

Mahmood Farooqui has compiled and translated documents from within the walled city of Delhi, covering the period it was under siege during the mutiny of 1857. It is a compilation of little scraps- complaints to kotwals, notices from the authorities, complaints from courtesans, and so on. This is the "other" view of life. A life lived on despite a war that rages. This is also accounts of 'individuals', and therefore, the opposite of a mob or army psychology.

In one of his lectures, Professor Dipesh Chakraborty mentions how Ranajit Guha (in his seminal work "Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency") refuses to individuate a crowd such as a mob- which uses modes such as rumor, kinship, and so on to mobilize the collective. The mob psychology, which works in say a mutiny or war, an insurgents' consciousness, does not behave in the same manner as an individual's consciousness. The statist contract between the state and the citizen, on the other hand, allows assigning culpability to the individual. That is the the job of the police, to assign responsibility to the individual for a "crime" committed. This, he says, is because the police is a progeny of the Inquisition.

This compilation however takes the "individuation" approach, reconstructing from records a history amalgamated from mutiny records about individuals.

Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars is an academic work by C. A. Bayly.

In the dimly lit town I call hometown life existed in the temple and the surrounding bazaar. Outside it lay the lantern-lit shanties by the river bank- the dark matter of the universe held together by the gravity of the glow in the center. For me India was always defined by the bazaar, the "haat", the "mela". This was how life and civilization and culture bubbled. Those were my reasons for buying the book. But Bayly's work is not romantic.

This book talks about how North Indian society developed from 1770 to 1870, while the British were in expansion mode. In his 2012 Introduction to the third edition, the author notes that it was an attempt to understand the commercial classes and their origins, and set the merchant families' roles in the context of the wider urban and political settings. It is again, a very detailed and deeply researched volume, relying often even on personal records of merchant families. He notes that many of the wealthiest of the nation (currently) are descendants of the merchants of yore- or at least come from the same communities that started accumulating wealth at that time.

Now the second category- the unlikely in-betweens that refused to fall neatly into either genre- fiction, or non-fiction.

Unbound: 2000 years of Indian Women's Writing, curated and edited by Annie Zaidi is indeed non-fiction in the sense that it is archival material, categorised into sections such as Spiritual Love, Secular Love, Marriage, Food, Journeys, Ends. Yet most of the extracts are pieces of fiction. When I tried to wrangle a suitable portion, I could not find a piece that would not be out of place amongst the other posts. Unbound is otherwise highly recommended as a sampler of women's writing in India, down the ages. From Lal Ded to Easterine Kire, it covers a wide canvas.

In these closing notes I quote a very small excerpt from Annie's Introduction:

"Contemporary Authors have faced abuse and threats after having written about bodies, sex, and religious institutions. Tamil poets like Salma and Kutti Revathi were accused of 'obscenity' and threatened with violence. Criticism was often accompanied by sexual abuse and this was painfully evident while I was looking for essays by historian Romila Thapar. I came upon a website discussing her work and one comment described her thus: 'That BIYATCH Romila thapar is nothing but a whore of the commies'. It was both amusing and sad to realize that more money, better education and exposure (mainly to American culture, judging from the language used) has not rid our civilization of men who, unable to disprove a woman's scholarship, start to abuse her sexuality."

Damon Galgut wrote "Arctic Summer" based on the unrequited love between E. M. Forster and his Indian friend Syed Ross Masood. The title is taken from an unfinished novel by Forster, which he began writing in 1910, and never finished. Syed Ross Masood is the real-life character upon whom possibly Forster based his character Dr.Aziz in Passage to India- at least it was a doppelganger of Syed. A Passage to India too was something that gave Forster trouble- he started writing it in 1913, but took 11 years to complete. For 9 of those years, he was completely stuck and could not continue till he went back to India, as secretary to the Maharaja of Dewas. Damon Galgut takes from Forster's life, and Forster's written material as the basis of this fictionalized account.

The book can perhaps be categorized as "literary historical fiction" or "fictional biography". This made it difficult to include in a pure non-fiction blog.

As an aside, there are 3 related books that I could have included, had I had access to these. These are now on my wish-list:

Gay Writers In Search Of The Divine: Hinduism And Homosexuality In The Lives And Writings Of Edward Carpenter, E.M. Forster, And Christopher Isherwood

The definitive biography of E. M. Forster, by P. N. Furbank. "E. M. Forster: A Life", is used by all researchers as the basic starting material. Furbank was appointed by E.M. Forster himself as his biographer, and reviews show that Furbank did a remarkable job, with great restraint, exposing the sexual obstacles Forster had to cope with all his life.

One other biography by Wendy Moffat, “A Great Unrecorded History,” gets a good review by none other than literary giant Colm Toibin.
Moving on to topics closer to home,

Poems on Life and Love in Ancient India: Hala's Sattasai, is a collection of Seven Hundred Love Poems written originally in Prakrit, and collected by the Satavahana king Hala in the first century AD. But it is after all poetry. And that too would not fit in. So here I take the liberty of quoting 2 short poems:


He was embarrassed
But I laughed and gave him a hug
When he groped for the knot
Of my skirt and found it
Already undone.


Like a bird in a cage
Moving from one gap to the next,
With trembling eye
She peeps through the fence
As you walk past.

What is she to do
If, wobbling on tiptoe
And squeezing her breasts against the fence,
She still can’t see you?

A few books that could not be included because I ran out of days:

Wicked City: Crime and Punishment in Colonial Calcutta by Sumanta Banerjee (Rating: 5 Stars)

This book has something interesting on every page. One such observation by the author goes thus: with the industrial revolution there came a demand for skill-sets and with it came new class distinctions and hierarchies. The "Shidhel-chor" (thief who breaks into houses with special tools) had utter contempt for the "chichke-chor" - the common thief who would not stop to even con a passerby of his hen. If you are a Calcuttan, there is especially no excuse for not reading this extremely detailed history of crime and punishment in the city. Although my hopes for finding some reference to "Nata Shaheb" (Is it true?- first Chinese opium seller in Calcutta- or was BonBon pulling my leg?) were not fulfilled.

Creative Pasts: By Prachi Deshpande

This book explores how Maratha history and Nationalism was created as historical memory from Bakhars- these are  historical records- or rather narratives similar to family records such as Assam Buranjis. The author says that this was the mode of pre-colonial history-writing in the region, and as such, deserves to be studied in the context of historiography. There are differing opinions about whether the bakhar form originated with intelligence gathering of a Perso-Arabic variety (akhbar) or in Puranic forms of literary story-telling (akhyayika) of a Sanskrit lineage. However,  especially in an Indian context literary and historical narratives cannot be considered mutually exclusive forms of textualities.


Caravans: Indian Merchants on the Silk Road

This book comes from a new series edited/curated by Gurcharan Das, called "The Story of Indian Business". This particular volume is about the Multani and Shikarpuri merchants. What intrigued me more (after starting to read the book) is that this is not the BC time period I expected- when we think Silk Road we tend to think Dunhuang and the ancient trade route. But this volume comes right into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Multani and Shikarpuri merchants operated a commercial system connecting Central Asia to India. In fact, the two regions have always been connected commercially, with the Bukharan Khanate and Mughal Empire especially encouraging trade and commerce between the regions.

Two more books I shall only mention, without describing: (the list would become uncontrollably long)
Sources of Indian traditions. Volume 2, Modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh  (Rating: 5 Stars)
Land Of Seven Rivers : A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal

A fourth category of books are decidedly low in number, although not missing altogether. This is a subconscious choice- one I should have done well to overcome. These are books that I do not agree with. The idea of debate is to give voice to the opposite view, and perhaps, the "contra" view is weak in contrapunkt. One prime candidate would be "Invading The Sacred"- especially since Wendy Doniger has been posted.

In the last few days I wanted to post from books signed by authors, and indeed a few of the books are signed copies. But nothing gives me more pleasure, more honour, than to end with "Waters Close Over Us" by Hartosh Singh Bal.

His writing is 'aspirational'- it is what I wish my writing could be like. The perfect balance between fact and narrative, woven together into a seamless tapestry, full of rhythm, colour, melancholia and hope. Out of the 365 books this is indeed the appropriate "closing" book.

Cheers, all. Keep reading.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Day 365: Waters Close Over Us

Pilgrimage is an ancient practice, common to almost every religion. But within the Indian tradition, its appeal is easy to see. It recognizes no barriers of wealth or caste. At one point in the wandering narrative that makes up the immense length of the Mahabharata, one of the seven great sages of legend, Pulastya, educates the celibate warrior Bhishma, ‘O lord of men, that rite, however, which men without wealth, without allies, singly, without wife and children, and destitute of means, are capable of accomplishing and the merit of which is equal unto the sacred fruits of sacrifices, I will now declare unto thee, thou best of warriors! O thou best of the Bharata race, sojourns in tirthas (holy places, but literally places where one can cross over, from one bank to another or from this world to the next) which are meritorious and which constitute one of the high mysteries of the rishis, are even superior to sacrifices.’

A parikrama — literally a going around - whether it is of a temple, shrine, a mountain or a lake, is the culmination of almost every Indian pilgrimage, and the most sacred part of the journey. The Narmada is the only river in India to merit a parikrama.

In the course of my travels along the river, and in the writing of this book, I did my share of reading about rivers; books on the Mekong, the Nile, the Thames, the Meander, the beautifully named Magdalena in Colombia, Marquez’s river. And it seems to me that even though the relationship between civilizations and rivers has been intimate everywhere, the sense of the sacred that we have inherited down the centuries is unique to us.

The Nadistuti or the river hymn in the Rig Veda sings of ten rivers as they flow westwards from the Ganga. It lists the Yamuna and Saraswati, as well as the Beas, Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum, and the Indus. Thousands of years later, in our times, the list has changed. The seven sacred rivers are the Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Narmada, Godavri, Kaveri and since 1947, the Krishna instead of the Indus. In this change lies the history of a civilization, the slow abandonment of its northern moorings, the long intellectual journey southwards in the subcontinent. In this journey, the Narmada would have been the first non—Vedic river to enter the Indo-Aryan awareness of the subcontinent. But its sanctity seems to predate this awareness.

For people who live along these banks, the Narmada is the other magnet of Hinduism, a counterpoint to the Ganga. It cuts through the heart of peninsular India, in a landscape already in place aeons before the Himalayas began their upsurge, long before the Ganga could even be conceived. Fed entirely by rain, it flows through terrain intensely familiar to Kalidasa — Rewa’s streams spread dishevelled at Vindhya’s rocky foothills, like ashen streaks on an elephant’s flank. Of its other fourteen names, Rewa, the leaping one, is the best known, but for most of its course the river is just Narmada, the giver of delight.

The parikrama can commence anywhere along its banks. The pilgrim must keep the sacred shrine, here the river, to the right while walking. A pilgrim on the Narmada parikrama never breaks the journey, stopping only for the four months of the monsoon when flooding makes travel impossible. Barefoot, depending for food and shelter on the hospitality of those who dwell by the river, the pilgrim will go over to the other bank only at the source at Amarkantak or where the river meets the Arabian Sea at Bharuch. By the time the journey ends, at the same place where it began, a pilgrim would have walked 2,700 km.

Today the vast majority of pilgrims cut short the time for the journey, taking buses where possible, but a few persist. Less than a kilometre from the source of the Narmada at Amarkantak, where the river is but a trickle, I met Chhote Lal Thakur.

He and his companions had been on the Narmada parikrama for ten months. Still in his twenties, he had been shaped by the journey — a long flowing beard untouched since the day he set out, a slender frame stripped of spare flesh. His son should now be two, he said, but he had not spoken to his family since he began the parikrama.

He was surprised by the question I put to him.

‘No, no one stopped me. When Narmada Mai calls, who would do so? If you want to write,’ he tells me abruptly, ’you should write about the Shulpan jhadi.’

This is Bhil territory on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, the most feared stretch of the entire parikrama. The Bhils are a tribal people who occupy the lower reaches of the river and are closely related to the Gonds of the upper Narmada. The Gond territory is still heavily forested, and has remained peripheral to what is seen as the mainstream of Indian history. The Bhils have been less lucky. Their territory has served as the crossing point across the Narmada for armies from the north of India headed to the south. It has left them with a long history of brigandage and some part of the tale Chhote Lal related could be the tale of any medieval pilgrim.

‘On the very first day that we entered the Shulpan jhadi,’ he said, ’the Bhils took away everything we had. We had already donned the sadhu’s garb, knowing what awaited us. We told them, whatever we had, they were free to take. They took away our clothes, shawls, the vessel of holy water, they only left behind the image of the Mai.
However, once we crossed Shulpan jhadi, more was given to us than they took away.

‘For eleven nights we walked naked through the wilderness, fire our only solace in the cold. It may have been a brush forest once, now it is desiccated, nothing grows there; the poverty of the people is there for us to see. Yet, each day the Bhils would give us one roti among the six of us. Mai ki kripa thi (It was the Narmada’s blessing), we did not feel hungry.

‘Walking in this fashion, we reached the edge of the sagar (literally sea, the term that every pilgrim now uses for the immense reservoir created by the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the river). It is not possible to walk along the banks. It took us four hours in a motorboat to cross the sagar.’

In a few moments he had spanned several centuries. Time after time, pilgrims spoke to me of the canals that have sprung up as a result of the dam. A pilgrim is not supposed to ford the waters of the Narmada, but the argument goes that in the same way that the waters of a tributary are not the waters of the Narmada, the water in the canal is not the water of the Narmada. Tradition may have settled the argument, but the builders of these canals have not seen fit to plan for the pilgrims. Thousands have to walk tens of kilometres to cross the canals at the nearest bridge.

The dam is only one of many being constructed along the river, and has resulted in a new set of displaced people, not willing ones such as the pilgrims but those known simply as PAPs (Project Affected Persons). Over the years, I had reported my fair share of such stories; the exodus from Harsud - a town sentenced to drown; the mock city of vast tin sheds near Barwani - constructed by farmers who believed compensation would be awarded in proportion to the size of their dwellings; the sixty-two pilgrims washed away on a full moon night because auspicious occasions are not the concern of the engineers who monitor the discharge from the dams.

These thoughts floated through my mind as Thakur spoke, while his companions proceeded to bathe in a small tank by the stream. My thoughts and his words were rudely interrupted by an inmate from a nearby ashram. ‘Everyone bathes in the stream, tum saale gandu especial ho (are you fuckers special), stop dirtying the tank.’

A day later I went to meet the mahant who ran the ashram. He sat cross-legged on a sofa, his arms folded over an enormous pot belly, watching the day's cricket being summed up on the private news channel Aaj Tak which had just started beaming to a large part of the country till then only used to Doordarshan. At the end of the programme, after chiding his disciples for their overenthusiastic support for the Indian team, he turned to me.

He had come here, he told me, a pilgrim on the parikrama. He had taken up residence at this place. By her grace, he said, as he meditated in the shade of a tree that still stands in the ashram compound, disciples sought him out, contributing their land and wealth to the service of the Mai. First he set up this ashram for pilgrims to the town, then came the school and hostel for tribal children, followed by the hospital that stands at the edge of the town.

The man who had taken me to meet the mahant worked with the local municipality. He had sat silently through the audience and as we emerged outside the ashram, he asked me to follow him. At the edge of the ashram, he turned along an open sewer that flowed past the hostel. We followed it to the banks of the river where, separated by a thin mud embankment from the flowing water, the effluvia of the sadhus bubbled in a cesspool, ready to overflow into the river. Unknown to the pilgrims, barely a few hundred metres from the source, the river was as much shit as it was sacred.

I didn't have to ask the question. As we walked away, my companion offered an explanation of his own.

A sadhu, he began, accompanied by two disciples reached a town late at night. The townspeople greeted him and his disciples in the prescribed manner, providing them with the best they could offer. As he left the town in the morning, he blessed them, ’Ujjodo’ (be uprooted) much to the shock and surprise of his disciples.

The next night they reached another town where they were greeted by taunts. Children hurled stones at them, they slept in the open and went hungry. Leaving town in the morning, he turned and blessed the denizens, ‘Baso’ (settle and prosper). The astonished disciples could no longer keep silent and asked him why?

The sadhu smiled and said, ‘If those who know right conduct are uprooted, they will travel the world, taking along with them the manners we so require. The others, who do not know how to behave, let them stay in one place and suffer each other.’ 

It was a story that also applied to the pilgrims and those displaced by the dam, but the conclusion it suggested was not something I had any faith in.

~~Waters Close Over Us : A Journey Along The Narmada -by- Hartosh Singh Bal

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Day 364: The First Firangis

My body’s experiences in India have helped me plot these elusive biographies. I first visited India in 2001; I have returned every year, and since 2011, I have been living in Delhi more or less permanently. Watching the ways in which my own body has adapted to the weather, landscapes, diseases and foodstuffs of India might not allow me to recover in precise detail the diverse experiences of my predecessors. After all, my body is different from theirs. And the particular India to which I have adapted—urban, middle—class, mostly Anglophone and largely airconditioned, therefore westernized in its climatic as well as its linguistic preferences—-is a world away from the India's in which poor sixteenth and seventeenth—century migrants settled. But my body’s experiences in India have taught me something about the lives of these earlier migrants. It has repeatedly alerted me to the fact that the dislocations of migration aren’t simply mental or emotional. Ever since my first visit to India, ‘my’ body has increasingly felt not like my own, at least not in the sense of being entirely within my control. It has been felled by food poisoning in Delhi, sunstroke in Chennai, and viral fever in Kolkata. It has tripped and broken its big toe on a stray root in the Deer Park of Hauz Khas. It has been pushed and shoved by pickpockets in the throng at Moinuddin Chishti’s dargah in Ajmer. Yet these disabling experiences have also been matched by the acquisition of new competencies fitted to my body’s new environments. My body has developed a tolerance, even a craving, for mirchi (chilli). It has perfected the art of the head waggle. It has adapted sufficiently well to the heat and humidity of the north that it can now run a half marathon in Delhi.

To understand what it means to become Indian demands attending to the agonies and the ecstasies of the migrant body’s encounters with new environments. Indeed, ‘ecstasy’ is a useful word in this context: it derives from the Greek ‘ek—stasis’, meaning standing outside oneself. We might regard ecstasy as simply an emotional state. But in its Greek usage, it is also an embodied condition: standing outside oneself means having a body that is no longer one’s body. Or rather, it means finding that one’s body has become something very different-‘after entering into a new mode of being. After all, standing outside oneself still implies legs on which to stand, no matter how much one’s body has been transformed by the ecstatic experience. This condition has recognizably Indian counterparts. The Sufi concept of the mast qalandar, a person overcome with ecstatic love for Allah, refers not simply to a religious or spiritual ideal. It more precisely describes someone who has surrendered to, and been transformed by, an overpowering bodily intoxication. Likewise, Tantric forms of Hinduism recognize a state of ecstasy that is not just spiritual but also profoundly embodied: in this state, one transcends the singular bounded self and finds within one’s body the traces of an infinite universe that has previously seemed exterior to it. Rather than a solipsistic exercise in navel—gazing, then, looking at my own body’s diverse experiences in India has provided me with ecstatic points of entry into the larger environments and historical processes that have differently transformed me, Roch and Simitt, and many other migrants to the subcontinent.

To write the biographies of migrants from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, then, I have drawn on my own experience of becoming Indian. That experience is detailed here in a series of seven modern—day interludes that punctuate my tales of individual migrants.The interludes detail the vicissitudes of my encounters with Indian food and diseases, cityscapes and landscapes, nicknames, clothes, languages, weather, and so on. In other words, the interludes are mini—biographies in the sense I have suggested here——stories of how a body has been newly imprinted and changed by its time in India. I should stress that these are not exemplary success stories, let alone inspirational guides on How to Become Indian. The process of becoming Indian is not one that can ever culminate with finality in a pure Indian identity: I can no more erase all the mental and bodily habits of my middle—class New Zealand childhood, my English postgraduate training, and my twenty—three years in America as a professor of Shakespeare than I can give up my green eyes and easily sunburned skin. My body’s previous histories in other parts of the world has made for some spectacular stumbles in India, actual as much as metaphorical. And I have no doubt that many more await me. But my own mini-biographies underscore how the tales of individual migrants to India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are always also tales of the larger ecologies, physical and cultural, that have shaped and re-shaped them. 

What it meant to become Indian before the heyday of British colonialism additionally demands that we rethink the very ideas of ‘India’ and the ‘Indian’. Of course, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was no single political entity called India. The subcontinent was divided up amongst a diverse collection of empires, sultanates, kingdoms, smaller colonial dominions, and tribal areas.These territories were not culturally, linguistically or religiously homogeneous: they differed within themselves as much as from each other. Nor were they uniform in terrain or climate. So to become Indian in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not to become one monolithic thing. What one became varied on the basis of one’s environmental as much as cultural and economic location. To become Indian in the coconut—rich hinterland of Goa meant something quite different from what it meant in the typhoon-drenched, mosquito and tiger—dominated terrain of the Sundarbans or in the arid hills of the Deccan plateau. Likewise, to become Indian in the fakir-congested galis  (lanes) of Ajmer meant something quite different from what it meant  in the luxurious havelis of Agra or in the Mughal harem of Lahore. Each location prompted different bodily transformations.

For all their diversity, however, these locations did have one thing in common. To lesser and greater extents, and for different reasons, each was a multicultural space in which migrants found new homes. Although Portuguese Goa was the first major European colony in India, and had imposed the Inquisition in 1560 to prosecute non—believers, it was temporarily a haven for various religious dissidents—Sephardic Jews and English Catholics—from Europe. The Deccan sultanates were ruled by Persian and Turkish elites who brought foreign merchants, physicians and soldiers—including enslaved Africans or habshis—-into cities such as Aurangabad, Ahmadnagar and Hyderabad. In addition to installing Central Asians as courtiers and retaining mercenary soldiers from Europe, the Mughals also welcomed Christian artisans, traders and priests into their main cities—Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Lahore, Delhi, Ajmer. Other Portuguese—speaking zones outside the official Estado da India such as the pirate communities of the Sundarbans brought together Bengalis, Europeans and Burmese Arakans. And, as Arnitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land shows, the Malabar Coast of south India may have been the most  ‘cosmopolitan zone of all, with cities like Cochin, Quilon and Calicut providing homes to Arab, Jewish and Chinese merchants and sailors. Each of these different multicultural spaces asked migrants to cultivate distinctive new bodily skills and habits.

Which is to say: these spaces not only offered migrants new homes. They also functioned as engines of bodily transformation. The foreigners who joined them altered their bodies in ways I have already discussed—by eating Indian food, wearing Indian clothes, succumbing to Indian illnesses and learning Indian languages. Just as importantly, their bodies were also transformed by the acquisition of new skills specific to the spaces. Those who joined local armies, such as Roch and Simitt or the Flemish captain Dillanai, often brought with them knowledge of how to handle firearms—a new yet devastatingly effective technology introduced to the subcontinent in this time. But they also had to master new bodily techniques: riding horses, enduring military manoeuvres in the heat, moving efficiently through intimidating terrain such as the rocky highlands of the Deccan, the parched deserts of Rajasthan or the Ghats of south India. The warrior sailors of Gujarat and Kerala, such as the Russian slave Malik Ayaz who became admiral of Diu and the Malaccan slave Chinali who joined a rogue Malabari navy, may have developed sea legs before coming to India. But in their new subcontinental locations they also had to adapt their bodily reflexes to tropical cyclones, Arabian Sea currents, and the predations of mosquitoes...

~~The First Firangis -by- Jonathan Gil Harris

Friday, August 12, 2016

Day 363: Smash and Grab

Many readers assumed this book was banned as soon as it appeared in 1984. Even NDTV’s anchor said so when introducing me in The Big Fight programme. Given the title, which quotes the twelfth Chogyal of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal, the conclusion was not unexpected. It was strengthened when Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim disappeared from view just as its revelations were beginning to attract attention.

A ban would have been clumsy. As it happened, Gurbachan Singh, the last political officer in Gangtok and Sikkim’s de facto overlord, filed a defamation suit against me demanding enormous damages. Normally, defamation has to be proved before the courts take any action. Proving can take months, even years. In my case, the Delhi High Court issued an order at the first hearing, forbidding sale of the book until the case had been settled. A contempt charge was piled on that when Gurbachan Singh produced a cash memo from a shop in some small town which had sold a copy. The matter was resolved only when the eminent jurist, Soli Sorabjee, representing me in a generous act of friendship, persuaded the prosecuting lawyers to accept an out—of—court settlement entailing an apology (Appendix A) but no money. The sales ban was lifted but the publisher claimed he had no copies left to sell. He wasn’t interested in reprinting either.

Neat, you might say. What J.N. (Mani) Dixit, the former head of India’s foreign office who died suddenly in 2005 soon after Manmohan Singh appointed him national security adviser, told me much later made it seem neater still. ‘South Block was very worried about what you might come out with,’ he said one day over lunch in his bungalow in Gurgaon. ‘The defamation suit was a godsend!’ Apparently, Gurbachan Singh’s colleagues in the external affairs ministry and the prime minister’s office, both housed in South Block, had made a point of playing on his wounded vanity. Whether they did or not, the suit was as effective as a ban without laying the government open to the charge of censorship. South Block was even more relieved when the matter was settled out of court. That averted an embarrassing public discussion of actions that were legally and morally questionable.

Dixit was one of the few in the know. Among those to be taken in by official propaganda was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the American ambassador who cultivated a viceregal presence. His Wikileaks Cable 1973NEWDE04127_b exonerated New Delhi of stirring up trouble or contemplating annexation. ‘Indians will probably prefer to preserve the existing treaty relationship’, he wrote on 10 April 1973, in response to State Department inquiries. Two days later, Moynihan approvingly cited (Cable 1973NEWDE04291_b) the report of ‘an experienced American official now posted in Europe who was vacationing in Sikkim during the current unrest’.

    The official believes that the demonstrations by the Nepalese—Sikkimese majority against the Chogyal’s regime, which favoured the indigenous minority, were spontaneous, appeared to be non—violent, (and) were not induced by the Indian government... India does not plan to incorporate Sikkim within India.

Indian officials who took pride in planning and executing the operation would have split their sides laughing. They can’t be ignored because just as my last book, Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew's Mission India, highlighted the most constructive aspect of Indian diplomacy, 'Smash and Grab' is the only account of the militarism, deceit and betrayal that policymakers are also capable of. Happily, that dark side of India’s Asian strategy has not been repeated. But the reminder may still be necessary.
There being no conflict between the two positions, a new edition twenty—eight years later should not make me an even worse friend to myself. With Smash and Grab long out of print, people with an interest in Himalayan affairs cannot be denied an honest alternative to the ‘manufactured consent’ of the official version. They must also be saved from a pirated edition that closely resembles the original. Pirated is not perhaps the right word since this clandestine product is also the handiwork of the publisher who formally returned the copyright to me on 16 February 2000. He said he was not interested in another edition (Appendix C). I was all the more surprised suddenly to discover he had surreptitiously flooded the market with a new paperback.

Telling the story again does not mean a u-turn is possible, or even desirable, in history’s one—way street. My Sikkimese friends have made their peace with destiny. On the whole, they have profited from it. Today’s Sikkim is far more vibrant than the sleepy kingdom I knew. Everything is bigger, if not always better. Sikkim’s first economic plan, spanning the seven years from 1954 to 1961 had an outlay of only ₹ 32.4 million. The 2011—'12 plan boasted a ₹ 14,000—million budget. This is in addition to the money New Delhi pours into the state for roads and power plants, special development under the Seven Sisters (as the north—eastern states are called) budget, and for disaster relief. The military invests massively in border defence. Expenditure on this scale is bound to yield results. Rajiv Gandhi’s calculation that only 15 per cent of development funds reach the target also means Sikkim’s 607,688 people are making money hand over fist. They enjoy the additional benefit of subsidised essential commodities like fuel. Those with ‘Sikkim Subject’ cards (meaning they or their ancestors were bona fide residents of the kingdom) pay no income tax.

It’s boom time in this little corner of the Himalayas. Many development projects that the Chogyal mooted but New Delhi shot down then are in full swing now. But it's progress without the stabilising ballast that tradition provides. Land prices have shot up. Peasants who made a killing selling their holdings are setting new records in ostentatious consumerism. A young farmer who traded in his field for the most flamboyant motorbike also hired a driver to support the prestige of affluence. Easy come, easy go. Some become bankrupt. Others are reduced to nervous wrecks. One feckless youth now tills the land his fathers owned. A gift racket to launder black money followed the excise scam that created many millionaires. The innocent Sikkimese did not think of exploiting the absence of any excise duty in the Chogyal’s time. But the shrewd Indian businessmen who flooded Gangtok after the annexation were quick to grasp they could make a killing from duty—free goods. All they needed was an address in Sikkim, a front man and a dummy company. Soon, greed overcame prudence. Factories elsewhere in India began rolling out manufactures stamped ‘Made in Sikkim’. The exchequer is believed to have lost ₹ 3,500 million on account of evaded tobacco duty alone.

Old distinctions of birth and rank as well as traditional cultural supports are dissolving in this upsurge of new wealth. Christian evangelists have never had it so good. Construction is booming. Travel restrictions that kept foreigners out have been relaxed. Indian Airlines’ ancient Dakotas no longer monopolise the air route to Bagdogra. Helicopters ferry passengers to the Burtuk helipad in Sikkim. A ropeway whirls visitors above Gangtok. An aerotropolis is coming up at Pakyong. Trekking tours compete with orchid and rhododendron displays, exhibitions, talks and seminars. The once moribund Namgyal Institute of Tibetology hums with activity. Even the agitation against hydroelectricity projects (no fewer than twenty-nine in north Sikkim alone) speaks of social dynamism. The one dump of a hostelry of the 1960s long ago gave way to a galaxy of hotels, spas and resorts.

Gangtok has become a throbbing business and tourist centre with packed cafés, a busy walkway and one of India’s few casinos. The Chogyal’s youngest son and daughter by Gyalmo Hope have made a major contribution to the modernist image. Prince Palden, a successful investment banker in New York, has married into the Sikkimese aristocracy and built a magnificent mansion in Gangtok that he visits regularly. Princess Hope Leezum and her husband, a Sikkimese nobleman in the police force, live in Gangtok where she runs a thriving tourist business. Few look back with nostalgia. But no one can afford to ignore the interlinked historical processes that converted a kingdom under India’s protection into the twenty—second state of the Indian republic. The disappearance of the old Sikkim was not the end of the Himalayan story. It was the beginning.

~~Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim -by- Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Day 362: Flora's Empire

Sanskrit literary texts abound in references to more worldly gardens: the great epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and courtly dramas such as Sakuntala and the Ratnavali. In Tulsidas's telling of the Ramayana, Rama and Sita first meet in a garden “so rich in bud and fruit and flower that in its abundance it put to shame even the trees of paradise." Commonly there is a dualism between the pastoral beauty of an Eden-like wilderness and the lushness of palace gardens. The forests where Rama, Sita, and Lakshman spend the years of exile are idyllic natural landscapes, with shady trees and flower-strewn riverbanks on which they weave garlands to their hearts’ delight. In contrast, Ayodhya, from whence Rama has been banished, and Lanka, to which Sita is abducted by the wicked king Ravana, are both described as garden cities. Here the natural is transformed into kingly gardens full of stately trees, orchards, and flowers, with lotus-bedecked ponds and man-made tanks.

The royal garden is above all a place of seduction where flowers speak the language of love. The Buddhacarita, a poem of the first century C.E., pictures the young prince before he forsakes the world entering a pleasure garden with its beautiful lotus ponds, flowered pavilions, and lovelorn women. One of the women entreats him to look about him at the trees, flowers, and birds, each of which signifies desire in some way. Buddha resists all enticements, but the story is typical of early medieval Indian courtly culture in exemplifying a View of “courtship as a combat which takes place in a garden." The Kamasutra prescribes the type of garden considered essential to the royal household of the Hindu prince. It should have densely shaded bowers, flowering plants, and a swing; above all it should be secluded, protected against prying eyes. Here men and women retire to indulge in amorous adventures. Courtly dramas pick up the theme of the pleasure garden, often with convoluted plots of misunderstanding, disguise, and eavesdropping until the lovers are at last united. Poets frequently describe courtcsies between people of rank by means of floral similes -thus the folded hands are like lotus buds, the gestures of the eyes  like garlands, and words of praise like offerings of flowers. The human form, too, is similarly analogized: “Like the lotuses and flower buds . . . human limbs in their ideal state were to be smooth and tautly expanded, or blown like the tender and succulent growth of new plants.”

Just as Sanskrit texts link the plant world and the erotic, so, too, Persian influenced literary texts of Muslim India are “redolent of flowers." James Forbes quotes “A Song of Roshan, or Roxana,” which details the repertoire of sexually stimulating plants: “The sofa of my beloved is decked with garlands of mogrees, overshadowed by a canopy of jessamin. I have strewed it with the sweet dust of Keurah and perfumed it with ottar [attar] of roses; I am scented with the oils of lahore, and tinged with the blossoms of hinna; haste then, my beloved, to thine handmaid, gladden her heart by thy presence.” A deserted woman reproaches her lover: “The gardens and groves, once the fond retreat of thy Selima, afford me no pleasure; the mango and pomegranate tempt me in vain! The fragrance of champahs and odour of spices I no longer enjoy.” Sanskrit, Persian, and Deccani poetry as well extolled the sensuality of the garden and its appeal to all the senses: scent above all, but also sound, sight, and even touch.

Islamic gardens did, however, differ from their counterparts in Hindu India. Just how profoundly we do not know, since there are no precise descriptions of the gardens that preceded the series of Islamic invasions that began just decades after the Prophet’s death and culminated in the establishment of the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century. We know what was in these gardens and what took place there (if literary sources are to be believed), but not how they were laid out, nor how their design might have changed over time, independent of foreign influences. Babur, the first Mughal emperor and a passionate gardener, set the tone for future commentators with his dismissal of India as dreary and unpleasant, its gardens without order and without walls. The Muslim tradition, in contrast, is the heir to the Greek in its love of order and logic. “Islamic gardens—like their buildings—are regimented into lines of perfect symmetry; balance and design is all; nothing is left to impulse or chance.” They are as alien to the Indian environment, William Dalrymple insists, “as the Brighton Pavilion is to the English south coast, or the Chinese Pagoda to Kew [Gardens]. Outside the garden, all is delightful chaos; inside, reflecting the central concept of lslam, spontaneity is crushed by submission to a higher order.” 

A garden created for such pleasures during one’s lifetime was often reconfigured after death, the mausoleum taking the place of the pavilion at its center. These gardens consciously invoked the Quranic imagery of Paradise, with its four intersecting rivers, as the aspiration for the departed. When Hindu rulers borrowed the concept of the memorial garden and its cenotaphs, as they did, for example, at Orchha and Mandore, it required some theological tweaking. Since Hindus cremated their dead there were no tombs, and since they believed in a cycle of reincarnation there was no promise of Paradise endoded in the garden. What remained was monumental architecture set off in a glade of flower and shade—mausoleums without bodies.

The zenana or purdah garden was a realm apart. It was probably the first garden to come inside the fort or palace; initially Mughal gardens in India had been freestanding entities, often ranged along a riverbank. Rajput and other Hindu rulers adopted the zemma and with it a garden exclusively for the women of the harem, their closest male relatives, and their numerous attendants——a gilded cage where women might pass their entire lives. Fanny Parks, traveling throughout northern India on her own in the 1830s and 1840s, probably knew the zenana and its secrets better than any other European. The four walls of the garden, she explains, must be of such a height that no man standing on an elephant can peer over” them. There were fine trees and flowers, a fountain with fish swimming in it, and a swing, “the invariable accompaniment of a zenana garden.” She adds, “The season in which the ladies more particularly delight to swing in the open air is during the rains”. Larger gardens, such as that of the palace of Lucknow, had tanks for bathing, and sometimes even a “montagne russe” to slide down or meadows for horseback riding.
How Does Your Garden Grow?

Fortunately the Victorians were an instructive lot. Garden books, journals, and nurseries mushroomed in the nineteenth century to feed an ever-growing appetite for guidance. At times gardening took on attributes of a bloodsport, so fierce were the debates between partisans of different styles. The rage for bedding-out—starting tender plants in greenhouses and then setting them out in neat beds in patterns that resembled carpets——dominated the midcentury. This provoked a vehement reaction in the name of “naturalism,” spearheaded by William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll. They favored hardy perennials or semiannuals set out in herbaceous borders, along with rock and water gardens drawing on the many exotics that could adapt to the English climate without coddling. At the same time, some garden gurus promoted a return to the formalism of Italian gardens with their statuary, terraces, and topiary. Manuals devoted to gardening in India remained largely apart from these squabbles, only distantly reflecting the changing fashions. One, dating from 1872, approved the rather garish color schemes typical of carpet bedding, but of course in India the plants had no need to be started in hothouses. A later manual recommended William Robinson’s English Flower Garden “as a reward once one has mastered the abc's” of gardening, declaring, “it is the most instructive book in the world in English.” Agnes Harler, author of The Garden in the Plains (first published in 1901), had also clearly absorbed her Robinson and Jekyll, offering chapters on rockeries and water gardens. She suggested that a formal garden was best suited for very small compounds without room for wide lawns or spreading trees; however, she cautioned against herbaceous borders, noting that they are ill—suited to India's lower elevations, where only a few perennials do well and even these refuse to bloom all at the same time to produce the desired color effects.”

The most popular manuals on gardening in India went through many editions and covered the whole gamut of topics. They provided detailed chapters on soils, temperatures, manure, watering, drainage, tools, growing from seed, grafting, pruning, transplanting, potting, kitchen gardens (best kept out of sight), noxious insects, lawns, and conservatories, along with designs for flowerbeds adapted from England and the continent. They advised how to create a spacious feeling even in a modest compound (mass shrubs and strongly colored flowers farther from the house; keep the garden simple and uncrowded) and stressed the importance of making sure that the view from the spare bedroom wasn’t onto “decaying cabbage stalks or servants hanging out the wash”—plant a little lawn under the windows with a bed of cannas or a flowering shrub or two, or a screen of climbers “to hide backyard activities.” One of the most popular offered plans for larger or smaller spreads that were simply English plans adapted only slightly to Indian conditions.

~~Flora's Empire: British Gardens in India -by- Eugenia W. Herbert

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Day 361: 1962: The War That Wasn't


Subedar Dashrath Singh was dying, slipping in and out of consciousness as the blood seeped out of his torn and horribly mutilated body. All around him, the bodies of men from No. 9 Platoon of 2 Rajput’s Charlie Company lay scattered—most of them had been torn apart by mortar and artillery fire. The firing had died down hours ago as the last few men, reduced to using stones to fight, were shot through the head at point—blank range. Just a few minutes earlier, Dashrath had fallen to the ground as a Chinese soldier emptied his entire AK—47 magazine into his stomach. ‘I felt no pain,’ he would recall years later, ‘just relief that the nightmare was over. The manner in which we were deployed, we had known for days that we stood no chance if and when the attack came.’

But the end refused to come. Every time he was about to slip into merciful unconsciousness, he would jerk back to wakefulness. Daylight gave way to darkness, during which time many of those, both Indian and Chinese who were still breathing, died. Some went silently, without a whimper, while others begged to be put out of their agony. A soldier propped up against a tree trunk, his legs blown off, moaned for a few hours, then fell silent as he froze to death. Yet, some held on, their bodies defying their wounds and the terrible cold.

What does a dying man think about? Just eleven days ago, on 9 October 1962, Dashrath, along with all the officers and other JCOs of 2 Rajput and 9 Punjab, had been ushered into the presence of Lieutenant General B. M. ‘Bijji’ Kaul, who had been camping at the Bridge 3 location (at Nam Ka Chu) for the last four days. Flanking Kaul, the newly anointed IV Corps Commander, was Major General Niranjan Prasad, the GOC (general officer commanding) of the Red Eagles, the famous 4 Division of the Indian Army. Others among the red-tabbed brass hats were the commander of 7 Infantry Brigade, Brigadier john Dalvi, and Brigadier K. K. Singh, the BGS ’brigadier general staff) of the corps. In addition, the commanding officers of the three battalions that made up 7 Brigade—Lieutenant Colonels Maha Singh Rikh of 2 Rajput, B. S. Ahluwalia of 1/9 Gorkha Rifles and R. N. Mishra of 9 Punjab—were all in attendance.

Even as Kaul outlined an ambitious attack plan to occupy the Thagla Ridge across the Nam Ka Chu, every officer and JCO present at the briefing knew the general’s plan was nonsensical.To Dashrath’s experienced ears, it sounded like the general was issuing orders for an advance the next morning across the river and up the Thagla slopes on the assumption that the Chinese did not exist. All the officers were sitting in stunned silence as Kaul droned on, using impressive jargon that included terms like ‘positional warfare manoeuvre’, something neither Dashrath nor any of the others present had ever heard before. Niranjan Prasad was staring at his shoes the entire time, while Dalvi meekly tried to point out a few technical difficulties like limited ammunition, lack of snow clothing, artillery support and other factors. The corps commander, deeming them minor irritants, impatiently brushed them aside.

Having spelt out his objectives, the corps commander asked the assembled officers and JCOs if they had any questions. While the officers were still recovering from the shock of Kaul’s master plan, Subedar Dashrath Singh from 2 Rajput spoke up: ‘Agar izaazat ho to mein kuch poochna chahta hun (If I have your permission, I would like to ask a question).’

‘Haan haan, saab, pooch kya poochna hai (Yes, yes, saab, ask what you want to).’

Dashrath, who had seen five years of close combat with the Japanese in Burma and had then fought in the Jammu and Kashmir Operations in 1948, said: ‘Yeh larai to maine pehli bar dekhi hai, saab, jisme hum nalle mein aur dushman upar pahar par (This is the first time I’ve seen a battle being planned where we are sitting in the valley while the enemy is holding the heights above us).’

‘Yeh bhi pehli baar aapne dekha hoga ki koi general front line mein khara ho (This must also be the first time that you’re seeing a general on the front lines),’ was Kaul’s glib response.

‘Aapne apni baat to keh di, saab, lekin hamare jawaab nahi diya (You’ve said what you wanted to, sir, but you haven’t answered my question), said Dashrath. At this point Kaul lost his temper and demanded that the JCO be arrested on the spot and dismissed from service. While Niranjan Prasad and Dalvi tried to pacify the corps commander, Dashrath was quietly asked to leave the conference.

~~1962: The War That Wasn't -by- Shiv Kunal Verma

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Day 360: Ashoka

Since 1992 an elegant cable-stayed bridge has spanned the River Hooghly, linking the suburb of Howrah and the city of Kolkata, the former Calcutta. Officially known as the Vidyasagar Sethu but usually referred to as the ‘second Hooghly bridge’, it is named after Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, a key figure in the Bengali Renaissance. At the bridge’s southern (Kolkata) end its overpass skirts the western bastions and the water gate of Fort William, the old EICo citadel that today serves as the headquarters of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command. This was where Lord Wellesley’s Fort William College was sited and where in 1841 Vidyasagar became the head Sanskrit pandit, being then but twenty-one years of age and already renowned for his learning. While Vidyasagar went on to greater things the college went into decline, although it survives as a centre of education in the form of the Kendriya Vidyalaya Government School.

Also overshadowed by bridge and overpass is another memorial to the past: a curious Palladian-style structure made up of a number of classical columns supporting a flat roof. It stands on what was once the landing place where young Britons coming out to seek their fortunes in Bengal were ferried ashore from the ships moored in the river. Once erected, it came to be used as a sort of unofficial gateway of India, welcoming incoming viceroys and other dignitaries, being especially conspicuous during the royal visits of 1875, 1905 and 1910. But that was never the structure’s intended purpose. This is set out in large letters of bronze laid out across one face of the building. They declare: ‘Erected in the honour of JAMES PRINSEP by his fellow citizen’ – the final ‘s’ fell off some years ago and was never replaced. No date is given but the memorial is known to have been erected in 1843.

The intervening years were not particularly kind either to the man or his memorial. The area originally known as Prinsep’s Ghat became known as Princep Ghat and even Princes Ghat. Indeed, the little railway station beside the river is today called Princep Ghat. If the site was known at all it was as a romantic ruin that frequently served as a backdrop for advertising or movie shoots.

That has changed in the last decade thanks to the efforts of INTACH, a national body charged with the preservation and conservation of India’s national heritage. Despite a shortage of funds INTACH has helped alter the perception in India that monuments associated with the departed British are unworthy of preservation. In the case of the Prinsep memorial INTACH proposed that this would make a marvellous venue for cultural events – as an arena whereon India’s own native traditions could work in harmony with its colonial past. In January 2008 that vision was realised with the launch of the first Prinsep Ghat dance festival, made possible with the support of an international bank and the goodwill of the Indian Army.

It was here that twenty-year-old James Prinsep was brought ashore in September 1819 and almost exactly twenty years later carried down to the river in a litter to begin his journey home, but as ‘an entire wreck … His overstrained mind … covered in desolation … his body sunk into debility.’

Prinsep never recovered his mind or his health and died in England in April 1840. But tragic as his death was, Prinsep’s twenty crowded years in India were well spent, and he was particularly fortunate in being in good company as the youngest of three remarkable Englishmen, born within months of each other at the turn of the century, who between them changed the course of Indian studies. Despite their shared interests and exchanged correspondence and the influence they exerted on each other, the three never actually met face to face.

George Turnour was the eldest of the three by a matter of months. The next in seniority was Brian Houghton Hodgson, who came out to join the EICo’s civil service in Calcutta in 1818. Hodgson’s superiors soon discovered that his fragile state of health was no match for the Indian Hot Weather and found a post for him as Political Assistant and Secretary to the British Resident in Kathmandu in Nepal. Here he would remain almost without a break for the next twenty-six years, initially as a subordinate but from 1829 onwards as the Resident.

The youngest of the three and the last to arrive in the East was James Prinsep, born in Bristol of a father who had made a fortune in Bengal only to lose it in England, as a result of which he was raised in such straitened circumstances that for a time he and a younger brother had to share one pair of breeches. With his blue eyes, pale complexion, blond hair, slight frame and what his sister Emily described as his ‘constitutional shyness … and a timidity of speech’, the teenage James appeared to be an unlikely genius. Forced by poor eyesight to give up studying architecture he turned down the offer of a civil service cadetship in India and was eventually offered a post at the EICo’s Bengal Mint. Here Prinsep learned all the necessary skills of a metallurgist under the eyes of the Calcutta Mint’s Assay Master, Horace Hayman Wilson, the great Sanskritist and grand panjandrum of the Asiatic Society.

Eighteen months later Prinsep was posted upriver to manage the EICo’s second Mint at Benares, where he turned his scientific expertise to good use in making a census of the city’s inhabitants and drawing the first detailed map of the city. He also honed his architectural skills in a series of ambitious civil engineering works, which included building a three-arched bridge, restoring the foundations of the great mosque built by Aurangzeb beside the Ganges and constructing a deep underground tunnel that drained a large swamp in the centre of Benares and became the centrepiece of the city’s new drainage system. Prinsep was also a talented artist, and the skills he developed in Benares in etching and lithography were to stand him in very good stead in later years.

The enthusiasm with which Prinsep threw himself into every sort of project for the improvement of the city won him friends in all sections of the community, so that when in 1830 the two main sects within the Jain community were locked in dispute they turned to him for help. Their argument was over whose remains were buried within the great dome-like monument that stood just outside the city boundaries at Sarnath. This might be resolved if he were to use his engineering skills to open the structure, ‘that it might be ascertained to which party (Digambari or Swetambari) the enclosed image might belong. My departure from Benares alone prevented my satisfying their curiosity in 1830.’ The Jains’ request had come too late – but it was not forgotten.

Meanwhile in Kathmandu Brian Hodgson had been using his leisure hours to pursue a quite breathtaking range of intellectual pursuits. The hostility of the rulers of Nepal towards their old enemies, and what Hodgson saw as ‘the jealousy of the people in regard to any profanation of their sacred things by a European’ meant that throughout his time in Nepal Hodgson was a virtual prisoner within the grounds of the British Residency on the outskirts of Kathmandu. He overcame this restriction as far as he could by recruiting a number of local Nepalis and training them to act as his researchers and artists, all paid for out of his own pocket.

One of Hodgson’s earliest objects of enquiry was the Buddhism practised in Kathmandu Valley. It led him to Amrita Nanda Bandya, ‘the most learned Buddhist, then or now, living in this country’, who soon came into conflict with Hodgson’s own pandit, a Brahmin from Benares, after he brought Hodgson a Buddhist text attacking ‘the Brahmanical doctrine of caste’. One outcome of their long and fruitful relationship was a growing collection of ancient Buddhist scriptures written in Sanskrit gathered by Amrita Nanda in response to Hodgson’s request for information on the Buddhism practised in Nepal.

~~Ashoka: The Search For India's Lost Emperor -by- Charles Allen